BC Sprint's Runhappy is 'Mister Popularity'
It's hard to believe James "Mattress Mack" McIngvale has been in the horse business for 20 years—and just recorded his first grade I victory two months ago, when his Runhappy won the NYRA.com King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. Over the years the brash owner has invested a Texas-sized sum on his passion, and more often than not has had little to show in return.
With Runhappy, however, a $200,000 yearling buy in 2013, McIngvale has the big horse he's always wanted, and the master of promotion through his Gallery Furniture stores in Houston wants to make him the most popular horse in racing.
McIngvale is off to a good start. A spike in the number of views of the video replay of Runhappy's maiden score last December drew a phone call from the folks at horseracesnow.com. A recent video of him being roused from a nap has a reported 1.7 million views.
The horse's quirky runs in his first few starts, the fact he runs drug-free, his upstart 32-year-old trainer, and McIngvale's penchant for promotion all add to the horse's growing fan club.
"He's a horse that belongs to the people," McIngvale said.
Runhappy, off the win at Saratoga and a score in Keeneland's Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes (gr. III), is a strong contender for the Oct. 31 TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I). Despite the fact interest in the son of Super Saver as a stallion prospect is peaking, McIngvale wants to run him next year and believes he can stretch out to a mile and beyond.
This is perhaps what McIngvale envisioned when he started in the business back in the mid 1990s with trainer Nick Zito. Spending millions on yearlings right out of the gate and shooting for the moon, McIngvale fell into the classic Thoroughbred trap. He attacked the racing game the same way he ran his business.
"When I first came in (to the horse business), I had been very successful in the furniture business and I thought I could equate that with the horse business," he said. "I thought I could do no wrong. I had some good horses and some good trainers, but I screwed it all up by micromanaging and overmanaging it, and not doing enough due diligence."
He finds solace and added benefit from the horse business in a quote from fellow Texan and founder of Koch industries, Fred Koch—"Adversity is a blessing in disguise and certainly is the greatest character builder."
Adversity might seem a kind word for the way McIngvale's first few years in the business went.
In 1996 McIngvale, with agent David Foye, bought 20 yearlings for $2,551,000, cracking the top 10 buyers list. The following year Foye Genetics, agent, purchased 19 yearlings for $2,727,000.
"Mack's goal is to win the Derby, so with the introduction to Nick, he thought he was on his way," said McIngvale's sister-in-law Laura Wohlers.
From that group came a lone graded stakes winner, Laydown. A rash of unfortunate injuries had McIngvale "firing Gulfstream Park" and taking horses away from Zito and sending them to Kentucky to be managed by Wohlers, who heads Gallery Furniture's service department.
"I didn't know anything," Wohlers can say now with a laugh. "I didn't know how to pick a foot or even walk a horse. I was a crazy woman; it was disastrous. I was just here (at the Kentucky Training Center just north of Lexington) to try to manage the barn. We wanted to run it more like a business."
The business model fizzled, but McIngvale continued, with a merry-go-round of trainers (see chart). He sponsored races at Sam Houston Race Park and even went national, sponsoring Turfway's main Derby prep race. In 1999 the former Jim Beam Stakes, later the Lane's End Spiral Stakes, was named the Galleryfurniture.com Stakes.
McIngvale's numbers dwindled as he continued to have marginal success. He contemplated leaving racing altogether unless he got another graded stakes winner. Of course, multiple grade II winner During came along in the nick of time to keep him in the game. Wohlers continues to work the sales but doesn't shop with the earlier fervor.
Wohlers got help in the form of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who was hired by McIngvale to consult for a couple of months. April Mayberry also was brought on to consult.
"Over the years I've learned one thing Mack has done differently than a lot of these owners: he's hired tremendous people for me to be around," Wohlers said. "I learned from the best in the business."
As for Van Berg, he taught Wohlers that "short cannon bones and a hock lower to the ground gives you power," about balance, and about wanting to see "horses move their asses like a 16-year-old that was looking for a date to the prom."
Wohlers saw all of those things years later when she ran across Runhappy at the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale as part of the Lyster family's Ashview Farm consignment. The colt, out of Bella Jolie, by Broken Vow , got the nod from Kerry Thomas' THT Bloodstock and Patti Turner, the wife of trainer Billy Turner.
Wohlers insisted McIngvale stretch beyond his normal $100,000 limit to procure her "pick of the sale." McIngvale told her he would go to $250,000 and they bought him for $200,000.
Following breaking and training at Webb Carroll's farm in South Carolina, Runhappy made his first two starts under Wohlers' name as trainer, coming from well off the pace to rush up the rail to the lead down the backstretch in a maiden romp at Turfway, and a tiring ninth-place finish going two turns in the Jan. 17 Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
With the sense that something was amiss with Runhappy while with trainer Chris Richard, the horse was given time off and returned to the Kentucky Training Center. Needing someone to run the barn—Wohlers was training via the Internet from Houston—they chose Maria Borell, who was brought on in the spring. Having come up through the ranks with trainers Barclay Tagg and Zito, Borell had also worked at a training center near Ocala, Fla.
The whole team thought it best to run the horse through his conditions and they did, winning allowance optional claiming races at Indiana Grand and Ellis Park before venturing to the King's Bishop.
At Borell's insistence, Edgar Prado was brought in to ride Runhappy. While in the paddock at Saratoga, Prado wondered whether he should try to rate Runhappy.
"I had to convince Edgar to go to the lead," Borell said. She told the Hall of Fame rider: "If you don't take him to the lead, we're both fired—don't do this to me."
McIngvale liked her response.
"It told me she could think on her feet," he said.
Runhappy, on the front end, won the King's Bishop by four lengths. On the front end after breaking slowly from the rail, Runhappy won the Phoenix by 1 3/4 lengths.
Another of the many reasons Runhappy has drawn such a crowd is he races drug-free and has yet to make a start on furosemide (Salix or Lasix). McIngvale likes his barn to be clean.
"I've been associated with great athletes from Carl Lewis to Clyde Drexler to Andre Agassi to Pete Sampras," McIngvale said. "I see these horses running on Lasix... I'm not any type of equine specialist, but I just think that if you look at the statistics, it lowers the number of career starts and this and that. I think we're living in a current age of genuine, authentic, real transparency, and that's where we want to be. We're going to run all these horses on hay, oats, and water and that's it. If we get beat, we get beat; that's how we're going to play."
McIngvale doesn't cut corners with his equine athletes.
"We run a good barn; Mack doesn't ever say 'you can't do that' because of money," Wohlers said. "We buy nice hay; we have a nice stall, nice feed. We pay for a swimming pool; we pay for paddocks. We pay for alternative medicines. If we say, 'let's go get a massage,' Mack will say 'fine.' He always wants his racehorses to have the best. Mack's been very good and classy about doing what's right."
"I love the swimming, and I like to train hard," she said. "That's why I love Mack and Laura: If the horse needs anything, they say, 'Do it.' Whether it is a chiropractor or a massage, these horses get the best."
The best may be seen in the Breeders' Cup, or next year when they hope to stretch Runhappy beyond six furlongs. It's been a long stretch for McIngvale.
"I started in 1996 with Nick after Louis Quatorze won the Preakness (Stakes, gr. I). I think I bought my first horses with him that summer. This whole year has been sort of surreal.
"Laura does a great job of managing the operation and Maria does a good job," McIngvale said. "We've got good chemistry. At the end of the day, it's all about doing one thing: caring for that racehorse. We've got a great team. They wake up in the morning thinking about Runhappy and the other horses in the barn. As long as they put the horse first, I'm happy."
McIngvale is happy. He has a big horse for the Breeders' Cup and a star in the making. He has a horse he can promote, something for which he has a knack.
"We've done well over the years sticking with the commitment of taking care of our customers and promoting," McIngvale said.
Gallery Furniture today has three stores and does $200 million in business.
"More than anything is we need to let this horse have his fans out there," Wohlers said. "He has a huge fan base. It's fun for Mack. He can't believe this many people care about this horse."
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Blood-Horse. Order your copy today.
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